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We all know by now that a website is a basic requirement of doing business. But as 2009 approaches, it becomes increasingly less sufficient to simply have a place on the Web to call your own. More and more companies are venturing out onto the Internet and interacting with their customers in places like MySpace, Facebook, and other social sites. If your business hasn’t done so already, perhaps your New Year’s Resolution should be to step out of the walls of your corporate site and start to build your presence on the Web aka your Web Footprint.

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It can be scary to leave the safety of your own site, where you have complete control of your product messaging and you can make the rules as you go. Out on the Web, you’ll have to play by others’ rules ‘î but more and more big-name companies are deciding the risk is worth the reward. Dell is using the popular micro-blogging site Twitter to post corporate press and discount offers, while Comcast is using their Twitter feed to provide customer support and troubleshooting. Aquafina uses their MySpace page to promote new products and offer fun videos and games to their visitors. Companies like Warner Bros. Records and CBS have taken an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude with the creation of YouTube channels filled with their content. And companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Red Bull have built interactive Facebook pages where visitors can play games, download free items and share their thoughts about the companies’ products.

One of the reasons many companies are hesitant to become players on the new, social Web is because they are afraid of encountering negative opinions towards their products. The fact is, negative reviews are practically inevitable. Hopefully they are in the minority, but how will you know if you don’t insert yourself in the conversation? Tapping into these formal and informal reviews, both negative and positive, not only serves as free market research, but also alerts you to individual customer issues that might otherwise go unresolved. As one analyst observes, “It could be that, at some point, the companies that aren’t on Twitter will begin falling behind in customer satisfaction without even knowing why…and losing customers in the process”(1).

So how do you grow your Web Footprint? Start establishing a presence in the places your customers frequent. Create a MySpace and Facebook page. If you think you could put it to good use, create a Twitter feed and update it regularly. Start contributing worthwhile content to industry forums and message boards. I stress “worthwhile” because the last thing you want is for your content to sound like nothing more than an advertisement. A big part of participating on the Web today is contributing valuable content that people want and are interested in. While doing so, you should try for a human voice. Create a persona that will engage your customers. What you shouldn’t do is simply copy and paste your corporate messaging onto the most popular social networking sites. Many companies worry about losing their professional image, but it is possible to be fun and engaging while still being professional. Trust me.

If you’re limiting your online participation to your corporate site, you’re missing the opportunity to engage your customers, get free advertising, encourage word-of-mouth and access unfiltered reactions to your products. If you’re not sold yet, here’s another benefit of getting your name out there: improved search engine rankings. Generally speaking, the more pages on the Web that link to your site, the more important and relevant Google and other search engines will think your site is. The result: appearing more often and higher in search engine results. With so much to gain, how long can you remain a wallflower on the Web? It’s time to get out there and build your Web Footprint.

(1) “How to Get Customer Service via Twitter”

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